Blog: Elizabeth Ziph

Elizabeth Ziph is the co-founder of The Linux Box Corporation in downtown Ann Arbor, has over 30 years of experience in the IT industry and sits on the Detroit Chamber of Commerce Technology Advisory Panel. She will be writing about open source software, the freedom it gives its users and its potential impact on the future of computing.

Post No 3: Commercial Open Source Software?

Typically, open source software is distributed for free and closed source software is paid for. There are naturally exceptions for example, Freeware which is free, but closed. Another, less common, way of doing things is something called "Commercial Open Source Software."  

Exactly what commercial open source entails isn't entirely straight forward. Most often, the software is open source, but you still pay for something, to a favored supplier. Different companies have different ways of handling this.  

Some companies distribute their core product and source code for free and also offer add-on features or modules for you to buy.

Other companies manage their distribution cycle to create paid for "premium" or "enterprise" versions. Sometimes only the paying customers have access to regular bug fixes and updates. Other times, the source code for the software is only opened up for old versions and customers have to pay for the latest version.

There are also companies that market their products as open source that just never really get around to releasing enough source to actually make a working piece of software.

The problem with many of these products is that you can be sold on the benefits of open source and commit to using the software only to realize later that you're not getting the benefits of having gone open source.  Commercial open source companies tend to have internal development processes that make it difficult to impossible for community developers to get changes and improvements into the product.  If that's the case, then you may end up having to maintain any changes you have made for yourself.  Commercial open source products tend not to have a very active community outside of the company.

Maybe the most important point is that the key advantage of commercial open source to its producers is some additional vendor exclusivity, or in other words, some freedom from competition with other open-source developers.  That can develop deeper revenue streams, and increase opportunities for investment.  For customers, the risk is lock-in to a single supplier—and escaping vendor lock-in is a key reason to use open source software in the first place. 

So, just because it is tauted as open source software, beware. Not all open source software gives you the full benefits you might expect .